Like a Local: Kyoto’s Quirky Bars

by Abigail Mattingly  |  Published August 23, 2018

Hiding among the old, cobbled pavements and traditional wooden ‘machiya’ buildings, Japan’s ancient capital hosts its “behind-closed-doors” night life.

The evening streets of Downtown Kyoto (Photo: Israel Gonzalez via Flickr)

Although drinking and entertaining for pleasure is far from taboo in Kyoto, the city’s history is built upon tales of sneaking between the narrow streets, fluttering from behind one masked door to another, and its artistry of privacy is what gives the city its excitement. With the secrecy and concealment ingrained into its very existence, Kyoto’s nightlife takes on the same, secretive vibe. These closed doors leave much to be discovered.

Unnamed Bar

Candlelit drinks at a no-name bar (Photo: Abigail Mattingly)

This bar genuinely has no name, and that’s what makes it so fun. It technically doesn’t even exist. Set up in a small attic of a narrow Kyoto town house, the bar is lit by candlelight and has no electricity supply. There’s no menu, either, but they’re usually well-stocked with liquor, so pick your poison and imbibe the intimate atmosphere with their unbranded salted popcorn served with every drink. You won’t get to this bar without help from a local, so get making friends and asking around if you want to find it.

Directions: ask a local! Hint: it’s in the Gion district along the river.

L’Escamoteur Bar

Drinks being served at L’Escamoteur Bar (Photo: L’Escamoteur Bar)

L’Escamoteur Bar brings in a taste of Europe whilst retaining Kyoto’s charm, by offering vintage-styled cocktails, including their own ‘Charlie Chaplin’ cocktail, and ‘L’antidote’, perfect for taking the edge off. Tucked neatly among the rows of town houses on a narrow street along the Kawa River with its tagline ‘Elixirs and Mystery’, L’Escamoteur Bar brings a light and fun atmosphere to Kyoto’s nightlife.

138-9 Saisekidori, Shijosagaru, Saitocho, Shimogyo-ku


Inside ING Bar (Photo: ING Bar)

What makes this bar so special isn’t the drinks, the environment, or even the place itself; it’s the owner. ING Bar, Kyoto, is owned by a long-haired Japanese man who lives and breathes his bar, and his passion brings everything to this place. ING is styled as a cosy punk-rock cabin with the music to match: and the owner knows his music. He loves everything from Serge Gainsbourg to The Rolling Stones, and will try his best to cater to any music request. He’ll stay up as late as you will, so take it easy on him!

288-201 Minami Kuruyamacho, Nishi Kiyamachidori Takoyakushi-Agaru

Bee’s Knees

Hidden behind a yellow door signed “Book Store”, Bee’s Knees is a speakeasy bar that combines the classic of a city library with the hospitality of a friend’s home. Bee’s Knees is the place to head for quirky cocktails and an eccentric style of service; the best of both is displayed in their cocktails ‘Not God Father’, which comes wearing a top hat, and the ‘Wa Smash’, served in a smoking wooden box.

364 Kamiyacho Kiyacho Shijo Agaru

Rub A Dub

Jamaican vibes at Rub A Dub (Photo: U-ichiro Murakami via Flickr)

Rub A Dub is everything you need it to be: a restaurant, a bar and a club. This surprisingly not misplaced Jamaican-styled bar offers dishes such as plantain fries and Caribbean chicken to fill you up, island cocktails to wash it down and regular live reggae performances to end the evening dancing.

115 BF Tsujita Building, Ishiyacho, Kiyamachi Dori Sanjo Sagaru

Ringo Bar

A must for Beatles fans, Ringo Bar is an underground Beatles themed bar, complete with small busts of the band and packaged LPs. More popular for its 60’s music, Beatles décor and pub-food than its standard selection of liquor, Ringo Bar’s best-sellers are their pizza and steaks with a freshly pulled pint.

23 Tanaka Monzencho Sakyo-Ku

Liquor Museum

Containing walls lined with everything from Yamazaki to Jack Daniels, the Liquor Museum provides you a unique chance to analyse the fine wines and whiskeys of Japan and beyond. With knowledgeable staff, a daily happy hour and a fitting selection of food, paired to go with suggested alcohols, the Liquor Museum is both a history lesson and a drinking session.

79 Mikuracho, Nakagyo-ku, 2F Fumitsubaki Building